Rochelle Discovers Mentoring

images-2“My car is messed up; I’m in debt; I don’t have any money; but the grocery store loves me. I think I’ve made progress,” Rochelle told me a couple of days ago during our weekly interview. She had been the only one in her three-month training program to be promoted to the position of Central Cashier Supervisor. She had also been placed in a training program for people who have shown promise for advancement within the company. She did all this even though her economic and family life is still quite chaotic. She was able to do it because she is a strong person, and she has had support from the managers within her company. They have mentored her.

One day, when feeling extremely stressed by problems at home, Rochelle decided to speak about the situation to one of the managers at her job. She had told me about her stresses earlier, and I had suggested she tell a manager at her work. She was being scheduled until midnight frequently, and her children’s grades at school were falling; she wasn’t available to help with homework. Rochelle was working far more late, late shifts than other people. I asked if she had made her scheduled availability as “open” for the days she got scheduled until midnight, and she agreed she had. I told her that was the problem; she needed to make her store aware of the problems that had caused. When she discussed it with her managers things got corrected, plus she also got praise about what a good job she was doing. She got encouragement even from the store manager. They all told her they could see she had a real future with the company.

The company Rochelle works for is known for its success in the grocery business, but it is also known for being pro-active in the promotion of women and minorities. I had heard that while I was getting an MBA and trying to figure out where I wanted to work after my degree was completed. I didn’t go with that company, but the woman who was my class president did. They are not unfamiliar with mentoring people from backgrounds similar to Rochelle’s into success stories; they are not unfamiliar with single mothers trying to balance work with child-care. I have had the experience of being mentored in large companies and it made all the difference in the world. My mentors guided me towards success and promotions. They were direct with the criticism when needed but also generous with praise when deserved. I think this is too often missing today, and Rochelle is very lucky to have found support within her job, if not within her family life.  The importance of mentoring cannot be stressed enough. Good parents mentor their children, and good companies mentor their employees.

Advertisements

The Bad Credit Cycle

UnknownRochelle’s car is again the problem and there is no easy solution this time. The car can’t pass the state emission’s test; it seems to be because of a major problem with the engine. Her car has well over 100,000 miles on it, has had the emissions problem for most of the past year, and will be too expensive to fix. A repair shop said they could give her a current inspection sticker good for one year if she just gets her horn fixed. It doesn’t work either. This is a short-term solution, but it won’t fix the long-term problem.

Rochelle pays $535 per month for the car and insurance. She has an extremely poor credit score and is being charged a 20% interest rate on the car. To make matters worse, she still owes over $5,000 on it. Her first thought was to let it get re-possessed. Instead she has decided to keep making payments on the car and to go ahead with the repair shop’s suggestion. Bad credit has made Rochelle unable to buy a car from a regular dealer with a much lower interest rate. She is unable to borrow money at a reasonable rate from anywhere and currently also owes a total of $500/month to five different finance companies. When she needs more money she re-finances one of her loans with the current places she owes money to. She is locked into a vicious cycle. The poor do indeed pay a lot more for things.

Rochelle comes over for one of her last two interviews tomorrow morning. Her job is going well; she has been promoted into the position she has been training for the last few months. Her managers like her and she seems now to have a more sophisticated understanding of her job and how to do it. She is also taking classes given by the grocery store to prepare employees for further advancement in the company. That is the good news, but how to get ahead in the midst of all her problems is a huge challenge. Rochelle would have a lot more money if she had good credit. Fixing bad credit has no easy solution. It takes paying your bills on time over multiple years. She hasn’t done that in the past, and recently missed two car payments. Her friends tell her that she can just pay some money to a person who “fixes” credit. It isn’t true, of course, and so far she hasn’t been seduced by that scam. The US is full of people with bad credit, and a good number of them come from the middle class. But many more, like Rochelle, come from the underclass. For them, mistakes made early in life, when they had little understanding of the world, few positive role models, no or bad advice, and a complete absence of any family safety net, continue to dog them as they get older and form families of their own, no matter how hard they work to leave their past behind them.

 

Can Poverty Be Solved?? One Reader’s Thoughts

Unknown-1I have now been interviewing Rochelle every week for  a year and a half; my last interview will be done the week of June 28th of this year. I’ve known Rochelle for 12 years, and she will remain my friend; she isn’t really looking forward to the weekly interviews ending because the time has provided her with the ability to discuss her problems.  A reader’s comment from a year ago has stayed with me and now, as this project comes to an end,  I think the comment needs to be given its own page.  Rochelle has a better job now, a possibility of job advancement, a better sense of how to work towards solutions to problems, but the strangle hold of generational poverty is so huge that I too often can’t even think about where to begin with helping her.  Magic wands don’t exist. How can she possibly move forward when everything is against her?

 

Submitted on 2013/05/13 at 11:51 am
This one has grabbed me and won’t let go. I read the whole site and have to tell you that I can’t read it any more. My reasons are not complicated, just difficult to put into words. I’ll try. I know Rochelle, or at least I know dozens of rochelles. The details of their lives are etched on my brain, and those details never change. The same lifetime gets replayed. I can’t help any of them, except in minuscule ways, but revisiting the particulars leaves me feeling deflated, crushed even, and I just can’t do it. Years ago Jim and I decided that our charitable donations would no longer go to organizations providing direct help to people, because we actually believe these “escape valve” non-profits just allow the country to ignore the depth and breadth of its cycle-of-poverty problem. So we only give to public policy organizations that seek institutional change. That’s what I mean by minuscule ways. Even if Rochelle were all of a sudden my daughter, I would have no idea where to begin to make her life right. She needs counseling, mentoring, quality childcare, a good job, reliable transportation, debt relief…and a new set of habits so that she doesn’t have to keep asking why bad things happen to her when at least some of them are the direct result of her doing things without thinking them through first. Money alone wouldn’t solve the problem — if it would, that would be the easy way out. And if Rochelle has come this far with absolutely no positive influence in her young life, can we at least hope that her own kids will fare better for having an intelligent, thoughtful mother? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee. So I can’t read this any more for the same reason I wouldn’t go out in the desert sun without a hat — I know when something can harm me, and I have to protect myself.

Dropping Grades

Unknown Rochelle’s work schedule has changed, now that she is training to be a supervisor over the grocery store cashiers, and her children are suffering for it. She often doesn’t get home until after midnight, while her mother is left to look after the three children. Tasha, the children’s grandmother, dropped out of high school herself. Not only is she not capable of helping her grandchildren with their homework, she has no inclination even to try. What Tasha does is watch television and eat; when Rochelle is working in the evening this is what the children are doing as well. Not surprisingly the children’s grades are dropping; they are also gaining weight.

“I have to go back to just being a cashier so I can get a better schedule at work,” Rochelle told me in tears over the phone. She had called me while waiting in her car for her eldest daughter to get out of school. “All the kids’ grades are dropping, and I feel so guilty. I don’t want them to grow up like I did with no support, but now they aren’t doing well in school because no one is home to help them.” Rochelle is caught in a difficult situation. She is trying to learn how to be a successful supervisor in order to move up in the company, yet this has caused the children to fall behind in school. The pressure on Rochelle is tremendous. She has to work to provide for her children, but since the after-school-care program was cut by the Texas legislature last year, the only place her children have to go when school is over is back to the apartment. The apartment is not conducive to homework and studying. There is no one to care for the children except Tasha, the grandmother, when Rochelle is at work.

The three children are in kindergarten, 2nd grade, and Kalinda, the eldest, is now in 6th grade and attending junior high. Not surprisingly, school performance decreases as the age of the children increases. Tasha has always been taking care of the children when Rochelle is at work; it is just now becoming very obvious to Rochelle that the children need much more than just an adult in the apartment when they are out of school. Kalinda is reading at a 1st grade level, and she is in the 6th grade; that did not just develop since Rochelle has been working her new schedule. Rochelle wants so badly to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, yet just about everything is stacked against her. AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the program that paid indefinite benefits to single mothers with young children, was eliminated in 1996, and replaced with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which has a very short eligibility span. The idea was to get “welfare mothers” out of their homes and into jobs. It sounded to many people like a great idea. But with no provision for the care of the children of single working mothers, the result is a nightmare for all concerned. And as these children grow up with insufficient education and job skills, their nightmare will be shared by the entire society, which will have to support these children as adults with various safety net programs. We continue to be willing to pay for poverty on the installment plan, though like all installment plans, it makes the product cost more.

Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.

Fear of Failure

images“I don’t care if I don’t get the permanent job; I’m happy to stay a cashier,” Rochelle told me yesterday as we were eating breakfast during our interview.  It seemed her promotion to a supervisor over the cashiers required a 90 day trial period; two of the three people trying out would be officially promoted and given a raise at the end of this period.  She said she hadn’t known this going in and was now somewhat stressed and feared she would not be chosen.  She is about halfway through the 90 day period.  “The cashiers are mostly young and talk back.  They take long lunches and breaks and seem to have no desire to work,” she complained.  Rochelle had told me about another trainee who said she didn’t care if she didn’t get the job, but I had never heard Rochelle say it.  It seemed to me that she was preparing herself for failure.

“Management isn’t easy,” I said.  “ One often works with people who don’t do their jobs well, and one often works with bosses one doesn’t like.  All jobs are that way,” I explained.  I also explained that not getting the permanent position would not be failure, but just accepting being a cashier in the company would mean she would be limited in income and again stuck.  “I thought you were really looking forward to moving ahead,” I said.

Rochelle gets frustrated very easily.  When we worked together at the department store she often wanted to quit at the first bump in the road.  I reminded her of that.  It was only after I got home that I starting thinking that most likely she was just afraid of failure.  She never had support growing up and has rarely tried to achieve anything in her life except this job.  She doesn’t want to lose face with her peers if she does not get the permanent position, and she doesn’t want to lose face with herself.  Hopefully we can talk about this next week.   To escape from poverty is a giant task.

Paying for Poverty on the Installment Plan: Stunting the Mind and Imagination

imagesThis is Jessie, again.  Ever since my sister told me about Rochelle’s daughter and her school project I’ve been preoccupied by the differences between the experience of my daughter, Rachel, at eleven and that of Rochelle’s eleven year old daughter, Kalinda.  For Rachel, eleven was the age at which she made two major decisions that have guided her life ever since.  She decided that after she finished college she would go into the Peace Corps, and she decided that after she finished her Peace Corps service she would go to medical school.  She did both.

 Rachel was a smart child and did very well in school, but all her friends were also smart children who did well in school.  So were her cousins.  So had her parents been, and her aunts and uncles.  Rachel never had physical fights with other girls at school, like Kalinda.  But then, Rachel was an only child, born to two professors with PhDs, both in their late thirties, without great wealth, but with plenty of money for all of life’s necessities and many of life’s pleasures.  Rachel lived in the same house for her entire childhood, the same one she visits now as an adult.  When her second grade teacher said she was having trouble with arithmetic, we practiced every day until she was confident about it.  In middle school she started learning both French and Spanish and then went on a school trip to Europe during spring break, where she was able to use these languages in real life—albeit on an extremely limited basis!  Before she left, her travel group had explored the countries they would visit, and we had taken down the globe from its shelf in the dining room several times, to examine the route she and her fellow students would take.  Both of Rachel’s parents and her aunt and uncle had served as VISTA Volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s, and several cousins had been Peace Corps Volunteers.  Both her parents and her aunts and uncle had advanced degrees.  She grew up with the tradition of both service and advanced education.  By the time she was eleven, it was clear to her that this is what life involved.

What has poverty meant for Rochelle’s eleven-year-old daughter, Kalinda, and in fact, for all her children?  They have moved from apartment to apartment and school to school all their lives, as Rochelle has attempted to find rents she could afford and housing that was safe.  There are few books in their home, and despite a valiant recognition of the obligation to go to school, no tradition of learning or excitement or exploration of what is presented at school.  When Kalinda began having trouble with arithmetic, Rochelle, preoccupied with work, economic difficulties, and extended family problems, has had no spare energy for intensive tutoring.  She had always been good at arithmetic, and her attempts to deal with her daughter’s mathematical shortcomings frustrate her.  I don’t know what Kalinda’s plans for her future are, or if she has any.  I doubt she has ever heard of the Peace Corps.  Her academic experience has not been enjoyable, and I’m sure she has no thought of attending college.  She is in the “slow group” at school, and she often gets low grades.

If Kalinda’s economic circumstances were different, would she be the bright little girl Rachel was?  That all of Rachel’s friends were?  If Rachel’s circumstances had been like Kalinda’s, would she have been the reluctant student, aggressive and uncooperative in school, like Kalinda?  I can’t know that.  I have met Kalinda only once, when she and her mother and siblings all went out to lunch with my sister and me more than a year ago.  Kalinda sat across from me in the restaurant, and we talked throughout the meal.  I was struck by both her good manners and her appropriate conversation.   She was friendly, lively, and outgoing.  She certainly didn’t seem “slow.”   Rochelle is the third generation of single mothers in her family, and it seems very likely that Kalinda will be the fourth.  Rochelle is the first person in her extended family to have graduated from high school, though it has done her precious little good.  At this point it is hard to imagine that Kalinda will graduate.

Now the federal funding for SNAP, aka food stamps, and for the after-school program that Rochelle’s children attend has been cut.  And of course, there are the many states, like Texas, that have decided that increased Medicaid eligibility (which would cost these states very little) is out of the question—mostly to make a political point.

So, though impoverished children are covered, impoverished adults are not, and their extremely low incomes make them ineligible for Obamacare.  Less money for food.  No money for afterschool care.  No money for adult health care.  Rochelle’s children are perfectly normal in stature.  We rarely see starving children, short and emaciated, in our country.  We do, of course, see many who, like Rochelle’s children, eat far too much of the wrong foods: too high in fats and carbohydrates, too low in protein, vitamins, and minerals.  But those foods are tasty, filling, and comforting, and cheap enough for their mothers to afford.

The stunting we see in 21st century America is different from the stunting of bodies that existed in the past in this country, and that still exists in too many other countries.  Today’s American stunting is the stunting of the mind and the imagination that comes from our addiction to paying for poverty on the installment plan.  Apparently we Americans are willing to save a little money today by cutting back on social benefits for Rochelle and Kalinda and the millions like them, and pay for their stunted lives in high interest installments in the future: poor health, handled through high cost emergency rooms; an eternal parade of school dropouts with no job skills whose lives must be subsidized by grudging and inadequate state and federal benefits; babies born to unmarried mothers who can’t support them and whose entire youthful lives must be maintained by a different range of grudging and inadequate public programs; and worst of all, the high and tragic cost of lives destroyed by drugs and other criminal activities, and mediated through the criminal justice system    These national installment payments promise to be the eternal price paid by a country that refuses to guarantee decent lives for all its citizens.  And the price doesn’t begin to cover (because costs like these are always in the fine print) the pain and stunting of each individual life, like Kalinda’s or Rochelle’s.